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Are potholes getting worse?

Michael Donlevy
15 Nov 2018

Potholes destroy bikes and occasionally take lives, so is there any chance of the problem being fixed?

Why are potholes in the news?

They’ve never really gone away, but they returned to the news in recent months because of Simon Moss’s face.

Photos of the 40-year-old cyclist’s injuries went viral when he lost four teeth and suffered a fractured spine and broken skull after hitting a nine-inch deep pothole and landing on his face. 

Potholes also hit the headlines in May when the AA’s director of insurance labelled them ‘a national disgrace’ that are now writing off cars. 

‘The AA’s report is an eye-opener, but it also misses a serious point,’ says Eric Craig, chairman of Free2Cycle, a social enterprise that supplies bikes to partnering organisations for their staff to ride for free.

‘Potholes pose far more risk to those on two wheels. They’re more than an inconvenience – they threaten lives.’

How do they happen?

Potholes are the result of time, weather and the properties of the road surface. Bitumen, which forms the top layer of most roads, weakens with age.

Wear and tear can lead to cracking, which allows water in. During winter the water freezes and thaws, and every time it thaws it expands, making the crack bigger, allowing more water in and creating a hole.

Traffic weakens the surface even more, making the hole bigger.

Why are they particularly bad at the moment?

Years of underinvestment have combined with a long, harsh winter – although to some, it’s the former that’s the bigger issue.

‘A hard winter is an excuse,’ says Craig. ‘We have a winter every year and every year it’s hard. We need the Government to start recognising potholes as a road safety issue.’

It’s true they’re getting worse. According to Cycling UK, 11,840 potholes were reported up until the end of May. That’s already more than the 10,538 reported in the whole of 2017.

‘We’re encouraging people to get on bikes, but sub-standard roads don’t help our cause,’ says Craig. ‘We hear talk – the Government are spending more on promoting cycling, setting up cycle schemes and doing lots of research – but if they fill in the holes more people will ride bikes.’

What dangers do they pose?

The Department for Transport reported in March that between 2007 and 2016 a total of 22 cyclists died and 368 were seriously injured in crashes where poorly maintained roads were considered a factor.

In 2015 alone, 46 cyclists were killed or seriously injured, an increase from 17 in 2007. And if the problem is getting worse, those figures are only going to rise.

Why don’t councils just fix them?

Money. The 2018 Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey revealed that it would require £9.31 billion of government cash and 14 years to fix the backlog of potholes and bring roads up to ‘a reasonable standard’. 

‘What’s really worrying is that 24,000 miles of local roads will need repairing next year and one in five could fail within five years,’ says Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation. 

Lack of funding has forced one in five local authorities in England to cut transport budgets. More than half have cut their spending on road maintenance, despite the fact that traffic levels are at a record high and growing year on year.  

What can be done about them?

Quite simply, spend more on our roads. ‘The ALARM survey is not alarming enough,’ says Gooding.

‘It’s all too easy for MPs to lose sight that the local road network is the public sector’s most important asset.’

Yet there is an incentive for local councils to act. ‘It needs intelligent investment,’ says Craig.

‘All Free2Cycle journeys are tracked, so we can supply data to councils about not only how the bikes are being used – where, when, for how long – but also the savings in CO2 emissions.

Councils are fined for emissions, so if they can save money by encouraging people to ride bikes they’ll invest that money in roads.’

Longer term, there are some hi-tech developments that could revolutionise the UK’s infrastructure.

Researchers at Cranfield University have developed a geographic information system that uses climate data from soil to identify where and when potholes are likely to occur, as far into the future as 2050.

This could help councils make savings by identifying roads that need urgent attention, which can be repaired using materials that would otherwise go into landfill, and those that need complete resurfacing.

On top of that, researchers at Leeds University’s School of Civil Engineering are developing robots that can maintain and repair roads autonomously, working at night to minimise disruption.

Yet these projects are some way from fruition, and won’t reduce the risk on your next Sunday ride.

A quicker solution could come from the US, where the California Department of Transportation is patching potholes using a new, cost-effective material containing organic additives that harden immediately when added to water, again saving time and money.

Even that may take its time to reach the UK, though.  

So what should we be doing to stay safe?

‘You can report potholes at fillthathole.org.uk, because some councils will fill them in quickly,’ says coach Ric Stern of RST Sport.

‘But they can appear overnight, so pay attention and avoid routes where the roads are breaking up.

‘Cyclists spend too much time looking at their GPS, their power meters and their Strava segments. You need to look at the road if you don’t want to end up with your face on it.’

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